Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan—Reviewed by Lea Kelley
“You can’t know what it is like for us now—you will always be one step behind.
Be thankful for that.
You can’t know what it was like for us then—you will always be one step ahead.
Be thankful for that, too.
Trust us: There is a nearly perfect balance between the past and the future. As we become the distant past, you become a future few of us would have imagined.”
We can’t always know that the world is changing around us. My K-8 school years took place during the 1980’s. I knew that Rock Hudson had died, and what he died of, before I ever saw him in a movie. I grew up with Ryan White in the news. When I was a kid, AIDS was a death sentence, and gay people lived in San Francisco.
That is not the world today.
In his new book, Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan writes about both yesterday and today, the world that was and the world that is. Craig and Harry are no longer dating, but they’re attempting to set the world record for longest kiss. Neil and Peter are still together. Ryan and Avery just met, and Cooper is alone. The book is filled with their stories, and the stories of their friends and families, of acceptance and of fear and of hope. These stories are at once familiar and new.
“He has no idea how beautiful he is as he walks up that path and rings that doorbell. He has no idea how beautiful the ordinary becomes once it disappears.”
Two Boys Kissing doesn’t just strive to capture today, however; Levithan’s novel is narrated by a Greek chorus made up of the generation of men who died of AIDS in the 1980’s. They watch over Craig and Harry and Cooper and Neil and Peter, and they remember.
“If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely that you knew us well. We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation. You know some of our songs.”
It’s difficult to capture a big moment or idea in a novel. It’s also hard to write about the recent past in a way that is meaningful; as a child of the 80’s, I love the cultural references in some novels, but do they mean anything to my students? But in Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan seamlessly blends the past and the present, and each illuminates the other. My thirteen-year-old students know almost nothing of AIDS; they would have a hard time imagining that a student would be excluded from school for having it. It is the chorus that brings this book to another level. Readers too young to remember will see just how far we’ve come in a generation.
“Max is a marvel to us. He will never have to come out because he will have never been kept in. Even though he has a mom and a dad, they made sure from the beginning to tell him that it didn’t have to be a mom and a dad. It could be a mom and a mom, a dad and a dad, just a mom, or just a dad. When Max’s early affections became clear, he didn’t think twice about them. He doesn’t see it as defining him. It is just a part of his definition.
What does Max see when he looks at Harry and Craig? He sees two boys kissing. But it’s not the two boys part that gives him pause. It’s the kissing. He can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss anyone for that long.”
Books push us in new directions. They illuminate lives we can’t live. The best books teach us something we didn’t know about ourselves, and we treat our neighbors with a little more kindness as a result.
“The good thing about human progress is that it tends to move in one direction, and even a fool who looks at the difference between a hundred years ago and now can see which direction that is. Moves like an arrow, feels like an equal sign.”
Lea Kelley, a Chicago resident, teaches 8th grade humanities at St. Francis Xavier School in Wilmette, IL. Most school days she tries to post her thoughts on teaching at Miss Kelley Writes. Sometimes you can find her on Twitter (@leakelley), where she posts her thoughts on craft beer, sparkle ponies, and books. And sometimes nail polish.